More “Who”: Secondary Characters
While you have to pay special attention to your primary characters, secondary characters are equally important to a story. If you’re not certain of what I mean, pull out a DVD of a movie you think is particularly good, watch the movie, then study the credits at the end of the film. (For this exercise, you will probably need to watch something produced since the mid-1970s, because earlier films did not include every Tom, Dick, and Sally in the credits.) As you watch the credits run, note the characters identified only by the role they played: “Boy on the Bus,” “Checkout Girl,” “Dog Groomer,” “Man on the Corner.” Think about these characters for a moment and try to picture what they contributed to the story. Did an interaction with this “extra” character tell you anything about the main characters? Did their actions contribute to the plot? Was it important that your high-paid lawyer put some money into that scruffy guy’s cup, or did he just brush the beggar off? How did this interaction contribute to your understanding of this major character and the story?
I once edited a story about a princess, and one of the things that struck me while reading it was how empty the castle was. The princess had only one lady-in-waiting; no one brought her bath water, no one laid her fire, the halls were empty as she moved from her rooms to the front door and stepped into a waiting carriage. No one accompanied her into the city on her errand—not a lady-in-waiting or a groom. The story felt empty because while the writer had done well in developing her main characters, she’d skipped the “extras”—those characters that add reality to a story, not necessarily by something they say or do but rather by just being there, helping to define the time, the place, the action, and the behavior of your main characters.
How Many, and How to Keep Track of All of Them?
There is no set number of characters or “extras” required for a story, of course. The entire story might contain only one little boy in a sand box. It might be a cast of thousands in a space opera. The number that is “right” is the number it takes to tell your story—not one more or one less. And every one of them, like every object or action, must contribute to the story, even if only to point out a main character’s personality or set the mood for a scene.
The trick, if you’re like me, is keeping track of all those characters you write about, what they look like, and how they are related to one another. For this, I always create a “cast list” for my stories. I probably started doing this because my writing began in theater, but for me, keeping a separate file open as I write that contains a cast list is critical to keeping the characters in my stories straight in my head. It also works as a time-saving reference as I write.
Here’s an excerpt from my Cat & Mac Mysteries cast of characters:
Catherine (“Cat”) O’Sullivan (28): (pure and clean; descendant of the black/hawk-eyed one); a shapeshifter (black cat); an artist/gallery manager; born on the Queen Charlotte Islands to a Haida mother and white father; her aunt, cousin, grandmother, and great-grandmother are all shapeshifters. [green eyes; black hair]
Cahal (Mac) MacAlastair (33): (from “Cathal,” meaning “a great warrior”; son of Alastair, meaning “defender of the people”) homicide detective who’s burning out fast [hazel/brown eyes; dark brown hair]
Charlie Chang’s China Buffet
Aunt Charlotte (Trimble) Owens (shapeshifter – owl), Uncle Jack Owens (non-shifter, white): Owners of Dreamscape Gallery; Cat moved in with them as a child so Charlotte could help her to live with her shape-shifting nature; lived with them throughout her university years before going to work for them at Dreamscape.
Lucy: Cat’s cousin (also a shapeshifter – black bird); lives with husband in Nanaimo
Tommy: Lucy’s brother (not a shapeshifter); brilliant computer geek who created Dreamscape Gallery’s extensive security system
Náan: Cat’s grandmother; shapeshifter (cougar or lynx)
Tina (Trimble) O’Sullivan: Cat’s mom; Haida; an art teacher (doesn’t shift)
Mike O’Sullivan: Cat’s dad; a white teacher who, like Cat’s Uncle Jack, paid back his student loans by teaching in a Haida village school in the Queen Charlotte Islands, fell in love, and stayed
Mike, Jr., Carl, Matt: Cat’s older brothers; none are shapeshifters
Notice that I give more information for my main characters, including eye and hair color, so when I get to Episode 6 or 7, my green-eyed heroine won’t suddenly have brown eyes. I also threw in Charlie Chang’s China Buffet, a fictional restaurant I put in Seattle’s International District because I knew my characters would eat from there often, and I didn’t want the restaurant changing names along the way.
So try creating a cast list—and don’t forget to add every new character as they first appear in your story. You may be surprised by a seemingly incidental character from Chapter 1 who suddenly pops up again in Chapter 12—and how much time you’ll save when you can simply go to your cast list to find out what his name is.
Next time, we’ll look at developing plots and ask the age-old writer’s question, “To outline or not to outline?”
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